Screenplay writing is an art form. There are different screenwriting structures and layers to it. There are several different ways to tell a story and it greatly impacts how the narrative unfolds.
Here we have broken down ten screenplay structures that can be applied to any genre and story.
The different screenwriting types are explained in a way that will seem relatable to you when you read the examples and it hits you – this is how I want my story to look. So don’t wait any longer.
Three-Act Screenwriting Structure
At the core of everything, when a story is broken down it boils down to 3 essential parts – a beginning, middle and an end. Such is the philosophy of life as well, and what are movies but art imitating life?
The three act screenwriting structure is the most basic and simple form that most films follow. There is the setup, a confrontation, and then the resolution. A movie is not just divided into three parts; there can be more – four-act structures, five-act structures, and the seven-act structures.
In this each scene links to do the other by directly referencing the momentum with which it began. It starts with the setting up of the scene – the layout and the characters, and then it’s followed up by a conflict which they have to face. It ends by the characters resolving the conflict and showing a hint of the future.
Good examples of three act structures in movies are the ones you’ve heard your whole life – Star Wars, The Fugitive Witness, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Die Hard.
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Real-Time Screenwriting Structure
So where the three part structure pieces together the important events in the timeline and then tells the story – real time screenwriting structure format literally follows real time. These scripts present their stories in a single uninterrupted stream where every scene follows the character and there’s no time lapse where the character does something that the audience can’t see. The cause of the conflict is presented in real time.
Movies like 12 Angry Men, My Dinner with Andre, Nick of Time, United 93, and High Noon are excellent examples of this real-time structure.
There are no breaks, time leaps, flashbacks, or anything of the sort. The story is presented as it is in “real time” – completely unbroken and unfiltered. Every second in time is important and screenwriters that wish to use this screenwriting structure in their narration need to keep this in mind.
These types of screenplays can be tricky because you often have to find a way to put the action in motion and build the motivation of the characters. The “ticking time clock” method is the most proficient way to accomplish that.
If you wish to tell your story within a real-time screenwriting structure, then you need to understand these rules — not a fraction of a second in the chosen moment of your character’s arc can be skipped.
The impressive aspect of this format is that the tension involved within the story is escalated and can have the audience holding their breath when delivered honestly.
Multiple Timeline Screenwriting Structure
This is perhaps one of the most complicated structures to be used in a screenplay. The essence of this structure is that it gives the audience the sense that all life in the universe is somehow mystically connected.
A couple of good examples of the multiple timeline structures are films like Intolerance, The Fountain, Cloud Atlas, and also The Godfather Part II. Most of the time the stories revolve around the same themes, emotions, and messages, but they aren’t always directly connected to each other. One story’s causation doesn’t necessarily always affect the others. The only bridge between them is the shared themes — like using the same actors to represent different characters or showcasing the same locations in different time periods, etc. Irrespective of whether you choose to connect these multiple timeline stories, this screenwriting structure offers the writers a dimension to go beyond the traditional form of storytelling.
Hyperlink Screenwriting Structure
This format includes linear stories, like those found in the three-act structure and they depict somewhat of a domino effect. Each of the dominoes falls forward, causing the next to fall, and the next until a final resolution is made. It’s telling a story from one point to another and not missing a single step in between.
Some movies like Magnolia and Crash have multiple timeline screenwriting structures — but where each and every story is hyperlinked, like multiple unique rows of falling dominoes weaving in and out of each other’s paths but always ending in the same resolution at the end. The cause and effect of each story eventually ties all the loose strings together.
These types of stories give the audience a sense of how our individual lives are always connected via an intricate spider web. Everything we do and all the decisions we make can have a parallel cause and effect on the lives of other people. The most essential part of this format is that by the end of the movie each story and each character has to have a powerful impact on the others and make a strong link.
This format makes the reading of such a screenplay even better because it engages the reader as they start to wonder if and how all of these stories and characters are going to be connected in the end.
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Fabula/Syuzhet Screenwriting Structure
As strange as its name is, it’s not as rare as you can imagine. Think Fight Club, Casino, American Beauty, Goodfellas, Forrest Gump and Interview with the Vampire.
This screenwriting structure format was originally constructed in Russia and employed a narrative form derived from a Russian formalism.
Fabula is the meat of the story whereas the syuzhet is the narration and how the story is assembled.
This format is followed by showing the end first, and then having the audience view how they got there. The story is about the journey and not the destination.The events of the stories (fabula) exist independently from the narration of it (syuzhet).
Forrest Gump opens with the near-ending of the story as Forrest waits for a bus in the bust stand. The Fabula of the story is told through his flashbacks as he tells various bus stop companions certain chronological stories from his life. The Syuzhet of the story is presented by the scenes at the bus stop being intertwined with those stories of his life.
The screenwriting structure gives us an added sense of narrative and excuses the otherwise disdained usage of a voiceover narration. So if you wish to have a voiceover in your script, then one of the best ways to do that is to write using a Fabula/Syuzhet structure.
Reverse Chronological Screenwriting Structure
One of the more original and attention holding structures we’ve seen in movies is- telling stories in a reverse chronological order. This differs from the Fabula/Syuzhet structure by slicing the screenplay into pieces and then organizing the story using those sections from end to beginning with each scene itself told in order.
The movie Memento is the prime example of this type of screenwriting structure. It uses the reverse order of scenes to create unique tension and suspense of who the character is or why he is doing what he’s doing, and whether or not the audience should trust the characters involved in his story. With each regression of the story — as opposed to progression in three-act structures and chronological applications — we learn a little more about the characters and the story itself. So while many questions are answered, at the same time more questions are formulated.
The beginning of the story is designed to be the main cause of tension, curiosity, and intrigue. Reverse chronological structures are difficult to construct so you’ll have to be very thorough with how you want the story to progress.
Rashomon Screenwriting Structure
This screenwriting structure centers on telling the same story from the point of view of different characters. This format often uses elements of the Fabula/Syuzhet Structure — having a character within the syuzhet recalling and narrating the events — but the fabula is different here because although it’s the same story, it’s told multiple times from the perspective of different characters.
This reminds the audience that there are always different viewpoints to the same story. It allows you, the writer, to instill even more creativity and ingenuity into your screenplays. But it’s a tricky path to walk on because the attention to detail has to be accurate to evenly relate each perspective. And each perspective has to offer an individual worth as a self-contained story— while at the same time providing a comprehensive story that has equal worth and intrigue.
Circular Screenwriting Structure
Life is a karmic cycle of events and that’s precisely what this format allows you to project.
The circular narrative is a chronicle that often ends where it starts and starts where it ends.
Once again, this screenwriting structure makes use of elements from the Fabula/Syuzhet Structure. The syuzhet is more represented in the form of a Mobius Strip, as if the story were a single flat strip of paper that is twisted in the middle and then joined at the ends, creating a full circle — with a twist. At the same time, the fabula is like an Ouroboros symbol — a mythical snake or dragon which is eating its own tail.
Circular structure narratives are best used in time travel stories and utilize the discoid aspect of the narrative in the most literal of ways. Movies like Back to the Future and Looper showcase characters that go back and forth in time, affecting their past or future selves or events — this is shown by playing with the paradoxical visuals of ending and beginning with the same scenes, moments, and locations, or variations of them.
In this screenwriting structure, the beginning of the story becomes the genesis of tension, curiosity, and intrigue.
Non-Linear Screenwriting Structure
Non-linear films like Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and Dunkirk tell stories by jumping backward, forwards, and sideways in time to tell a lone story. The premise is that these stories are not presented in chronological order. The narrative does not obey the direct causality pattern of the story events like the ones you’d find in a three-act structure – it follows a path of its own story telling.
The concept behind non-linear films is to challenge the way the audience remembers things — or showcase how characters recall their own memories of experiences they’ve been through.
The specialty of this screenwriting structure is that non-linear stories go back and forth and sometimes sideways. We’re not going from Point A to Z or vice versa, hitting every point in between. Instead, we’re maybe going from Point A to Point F, then jumping to Point M and Point K, only to jump back to Point B.
This challenges the way the reader and the eventual audience remembers the sequence of the narrative. They have to recollect where certain scenes and storylines left off and then have to be able to pick the story back up almost immediately. The thrill is in the challenge.
Oneiric Screenwriting Structure
You must have seen the dream sequence in several movies. The oneiric Structure is distinctive as it depicts a story by exploring the structure of dreams, memories, and the human consciousness.
Subtle usage of this structure is best seen in Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky. The lines between the real world and the dream world get increasingly blurry as the film progresses. We’re not sure of what is real and what is not.
Another excellent example is the Tree of Life. Watching this film feels like you are witnessing a person’s life as well as the life of the planet overall — through vague memories and dreams.
The oneiric structure is definitely something to use when you want to explore the human consciousness without being bound by the rules of the mortal realm.
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So here are the ten screenwriting structures you can choose from when it comes to narrating your story. The format of your screenplay is less about covering a specific number of pages and more about deciding which form suits your narrative best.